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Fringe Benefits: see a play, buy a water buffalo

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When Jane O'Mahoney decided the school and medical facility she helped found in the Nepalese village of Kharpa should stick to using local resources, she wasn't thinking "slow food" or "international economic politics." She simply found it a bit horrible when the complex's head porter nearly got his feet sheared off by a sheet of roofing tin he was trucking in. "There are no motorable roads to the village," O'Mahoney says; the tin had been imported most of the way on foot, but near the village the road got a little better and the porter hired a truck driver. When they had to make a quick stop, the metal went flying. "Fortunately he was with a teacher," she says, "so the driver didn't just dump him." A similar attempt to ship in powdered milk wasn't gory, but half of the milk, when it arrived, was covered in mold.

She's glad she never courted corporate sponsors for an equally concrete reason: rogue Maoists. Nepal is governed by a parliamentary monarchy, the parliament having seized power in the early 90s and made the country more practically democratic. But last year's massacre of the royal family exacerbated political instability. Currently, a certain strain of rural local "politics" (beatings, murders) is dominated by disorganized Maoist factions claiming to be sponsored by the United Marxist-Leninists--the official communist party, which says it wants nothing to do with them. "Had I had any corporate funding," says O'Mahoney, "that would've been really dangerous."

Not that running a private boarding school (albeit one that's attended by children of all castes, with sliding-scale tuition) is safe under such conditions anyway. In fall 2000 the school's headmaster, Bhola Hari Dhital, began receiving anonymous threatening letters. The Maoists had already pummeled one local headmaster's arms and legs to a pulp with stones, so Dhital's wife made him flee to Kathmandu. (He soon returned and now insists on standing his ground, which makes O'Mahoney nervous.)

O'Mahoney isn't sure the Maoists (or which Maoists) were behind the threats, but says they make no secret of disliking Dhital "for his independent-mindedness and success." The complex opened in 1999 and began training teachers, some to post in other villages and some to stay and instruct the younger pupils. It's done so well that other villages, dissatisfied with government schools, have opened private ones of their own. The Maoists took umbrage at this; when they aren't shutting down the schools entirely, they're forbidding them to collect tuition. The resultant cash squeeze has forced O'Mahoney to fund-raise in the States.

"Originally, we wanted it to be free tuition," says O'Mahoney, who currently paints houses in Chicago for a living and goes to Kharpa only occasionally as a consultant. "Now I'm beginning to think being totally free sort of devalues it. Nepal has been done a lot of harm by reliance on outside support." But O'Mahoney and Dhital want to keep the place going, so she's given "whoever steps up" in Chicago the go-ahead to put on benefits. The first, an auction of Tibetan wall hangings, fetched the school five water buffalo. Now O'Mahoney's going after the theater crowd: Saturday, April 6, the Neo-Futurists will mount a 20-sketch, 40-minute rendition of their signature 60-sketch, 60-minute Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind and fork over the proceeds to the school. Tickets are $20 in advance, $22 at the door; a reception begins at 7 and the show starts around 8. The Neo-Futurarium is at 5153 N. Ashland; call O'Mahoney at 773-248-1874 for information or reservations.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane, Jane O'Mahoney.

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